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75 years on, shocking Tol Massacre forgotten


The confronting scene at Tol Plantation in 1945 when the remains of 160 Australian troops bayoneted to death when escaping the Japanese invasion of Rabaul were discovered (National Archives of Australia)


IT WAS one of the most callous atrocities of the Pacific war.

Seventy-five years yesterday, 160 Australian prisoners were bayoneted, beheaded, shot or burned alive by Japanese troops – on what was then Australian territory.

So horrific was the Tol Massacre on the island of New Britain that the Australian government suppressed details for 47 years.

That this tragedy is barely remembered and rarely commemorated blights Australia’s national conscience and to this day rankles the distressed families of the victims.

Few Australians know of the carnage at neighbouring Tol and Waitavalo plantations  - nor that it came soon after one of the most shameful episodes of our war when 1,400 diggers and civilians were abandoned as ‘hostages to fortune’ ahead of the Japanese invasion of Rabaul on 23 January 1942.

Rabaul was the capital of Australian-mandated New Guinea and was protected by a tiny garrison consisting mainly of the 2/22nd Battalion Lark Force.

The town was quickly routed by a massive Japanese fleet of carriers, destroyers, submarines and fighter and bomber aircraft.

When the order “every man for himself” was given, soldiers and civilians fanned out over New Britain looking for escape routes through the most rugged terrain imaginable.

Some endured an epic trek through dense jungle – battling malaria, dysentery, tropical ulcers, leeches, exhaustion, malnutrition and crocodile-infested rivers – to eventually reach points where they were able to escape on small boats.

But this was not the majority, including those who reached Tol Plantation hoping to be rescued.

To their horror, five barge-loads of Japanese troops were on the beach to meet them.

There was no option for the starving, exhausted, virtually unarmed Australians but to surrender. At first it seemed they would be treated as normal prisoners of war. Then an order to execute the prisoners was given.

Red Cross brassards were ripped off medics. Men were trussed together in small groups with fishing line or ropes and taken into the jungle and slaughtered.

They stood or sat listening to their mates’ death cries – awaiting their own fate by blade or bullet.

The few survivors told of grinning Japanese soldiers emerging from the bush wiping blood from their bayonets and beckoning their next targets.

Some victims - asked if they wanted to be shot or bayoneted - chose the gun only to be stabbed. Two wounded men found alive in Waitavalo Plantation homestead had been smeared in pig grease to be burned alive in the house.

Requests for final cigarettes were refused. Some men prayed, some begged for their lives, others said cheerio to their mates.

They were covered in palm leaves and left to die. Incredibly, several men feigned death and survived to tell the story.

Private Billy Cook of the 2/12 Field Ambulance survived 11 bayonet wounds. He wrote:

“The first stab knocked us down. The Japs stood over us stabbing madly. I received six wounds in the back, two just missing the spine, two more breaking ribs…

“As the Japanese were moving off, the man next to me groaned. One of the Japanese soldiers came running back and stabbed him once more. By this time I could hold my breath no longer. When I drew a deep breath the soldier heard me and inflicted four more bayonet wounds.

“The last thrust went through my ear into my mouth, severing an artery on the way. Seeing the blood gushing out of my mouth, he assumed that I was at last dead, he covered the three of us with coconut fronds and vine leaves and left.”

Cook somehow crawled off into the jungle – as did five other survivors – and eventually was evacuated from New Britain to Port Moresby with 156 soldiers, sailors and civilians aboard the overcrowded government yacht, the Laurabada.

An estimated 1,053 of the troops and Rabaul residents who remained in the town or who were captured would eventually perish as prisoners when their prison ship, the Montevideo Maru, taking them to Hainan then occupied by Japan, was sunk by mistake by an American submarine off the Philippines.

The details of that episode and the miserable way victims’ families were treated for decades - plus the disgraceful abandonment of Rabaul itself - are stories for elsewhere.

So, too, is the shameful way in which the Chinese population under Australia’s protection was left behind along with indigenous workers employed by the colonial administration.

But this weekend we remember the 160 poor souls who died such unspeakable deaths at Tol and Waitavalo 75 years ago.

Many were just boys – the average age of Lark Force soldiers was 18 and a half – while some of the civilian volunteer rifle men were granddads in their fifties and sixties.

Some remains were retrieved post-war and buried at Rabaul’s beautiful Bita Paka war cemetery - but the bones of others rot still in the jungle soil of a place whose name most Australian have never heard.

They deserve better.

Lest We Forget.


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Michael James Rankin

I am currently writing a book of biographies of 13 of my military ancestors who died serving in WW1 and WW2. I have five who were Prisoners of War under the Japanese.
Ronald Maurice Cantwell NX46687 - 2/10 Field Ambulance was murdered at Pol Plantation Rabaul
I also had 3 relatives die at Sandakan, Borneo in 1945.
Charles William Rankin NX47925 - 2/30th Infantry Battalion
George Henry Rankin NX33210 - 2/10 Field Ambulance
Charles Frederick Rankin NX38426 - 2/10 Field Ambulance
If anyone has any information about these men or had their own relatives who served in the same locations, I would love to hear from you. Anything you have to offer may help me move along with my research.
Thanking you all in advance.
Michael Rankin - [email protected]

Brett Wood

My great uncle Sergeant Gordon Ross Hudson (NX65306) was in the 2/10 Field Ambulance.

I have many stories passed on in our family but little is known of Uncle Gordon and what definitely happened.

It is recorded that he was bayoneted at Tol Plantation and, although so many years have passed, my heart aches knowing what he and many went through.

I was lucky to recently make a pilgrimage with my family to the Rabaul War Cemetery but still so many questions are unanswered.

Thank you to all that have posted already, a few leads and opportunities to discover more.

Matthew Long

I worked in Rabaul in the mid 1980s and had to travel to Wide Bay to visit a logging operation operated by a Japanese company, Open Bay Timbers.

On the side of the airstrip is a small memorial to these guys . At the time of my visit I had no idea what had happened.

As you have pointed out, very little is reported on this massacre. A new memorial should be installed and more information should be given regarding this horrible story. We remember other sad stories and irs about time more voice is about this story.

PS The Japanese manager of this company was the first Japanese to become a full member of the Rabaul RSL.

Michele (Shelley) Truscott

Hello, my father-in-law was one of the people who assisted in the identification and burial of Tol massacre victims in late March 1945.

We know he was there and was deeply affected by it. I have tried to do a lot of research and once found his name in an article about Tol Plantation but can’t locate that now.

We even have researched at the AWM in Canberra and turned up very little.

We believe he was in the AAMC as part of the 13 Australian Field Coy RAE. That is what his records show.

If anyone has any information we would be grateful. His name was Corporal Harry Truscott

Ronald Lindsay Harvey

My father, Ron Harvey TX1635, was taken prisoner in Java. He never spoke of the atrocities yet was afraid future generations would never realise the sacrifices and courage of our soldiers.

Ron never missed a reunion and was a proud Australian soldier till the day he died. I revere his memory, and all who served to defend our beautiful country.

Norma Tonks

Stephen Fawcett, I saw your post about your uncle Les Fawcett. Les was in my father’s unit.

Sandra Fox

I am the great niece of Bill Cook the survivor who tells his story on this site.

Glen Farrow

My late father was one of a group who, in late 1945, was tasked with cleaning up and burying those who died at Tol Plantation.

I have a photo of the cemetery there after they finished. The remains were probably transferred to an official cemetery later.

I’m sure your relative's remains were treated with reverence and given a proper burial. Nothing would be left in the jungle as the article suggests. Lest we forget.

Julie Bodin

I lost a great uncle at Tol Plantation. He was killed by the Japanese.

In 2018 six of my cousins and I visited Tol Plantation and stayed a few days after an arduous 10-hour journey by four-wheel drive from Rabaul. I hate to think about what the soldiers went through on foot.

We did this in support of my grandmother, Veronica Devlin nee Ousley, and her sister, Verna Heaton-Harris nee Ousley.

My great uncle Daniel Ousley was their youngest brother. He was pronounced missing in action.

My grandmother and her sister searched in vain trying to find out what happened to their Danny Boy, writing hundreds of letters to the government and other sources over many long years but unfortunately to no avail.

My great grandmother died in 1942, broken-hearted after losing communication with her youngest son and knowing in her heart his true fate.

Both my grandmother and my aunty died not knowing the truth about the tragedy of the Lark Force and what happened at the Tol Plantation. Always waiting and hoping that one day he may walk back into their lives some way, somehow.

Steven Fawcett

My uncle, Les Fawcett NX 45605, 2/10 field Ambulance, was a survivor of the Rabaul invasion, escaping on the Laurabada.

After purchasing Gunner David Bloomfield's excellent book, 'Rabaul Diary', in 2001, I was lucky enough to be in contact with him and receive letters, newspaper articles and stories from their ordeal together and apart.

I will treasure them always.

Philip Kai Morre

Their great sacrifice will be remembered in the years to come. They died to bring peace and harmony which we have enjoyed.

Leonie Gale

My father Private Rex Livingstone Barrett and his company came across the massacre at Tol Plantation. He never spoke about the war, marched in parades or claimed his medals. He would shout out at night from malaria dreams. Lest we forget.

Norma Tonks

My father, Thomas Webb NX45161, a nurse, lost his life at Tol. RIP dad.

Margaret Smith

RIP my mother's dad Private Angus William (Mick) Burnett and his brother Private Edward Burnett who were both killed at Tol Plantation.

To this day their names are not on cenotaphs at Warrnambool, their home town from where they enlisted. Their names hopefully are on the memorial at the place they died.

We have found them on the the war memorial in Canberra.

Lest We Forget. Never forgotten and always loved and remembered by us all now and forever.

Narelle Stewart

My Great Uncle Alfred Robinson was one of the survivors and continued to fight for his country. These brave men will never be forgotten.

D. Scully

Milton, I would be keen to touch base with you. David Bloomfield served my father in laws uncle and mentions him in his book that I have just purchased. Will check back here regularly.

Milton B O'Dell

It is unfortunate that my father-in-law, Gunner David Bloomfield, a survivor in the Lark Force Anti-Aircraft Battery, and who escaped with others to Port Moresby and then Cairns is omitted from web published rolls.

He was rejected as too young for the AIF so fought as militia, a 'Choco' that didn't melt, fighting right alongside AIF against impossible odds with outdated inferior equipment.

He published his diary, Rabaul Diary, including some of the few pictures taken secretly by Sgt Les Robbins of which David is included amongst the other soldiers in Rabaul arriving in Port Moresby on the Laurabada.

Yet, other than by the Australian government, he is left off registers by web publishers.

Ian Duffield

My uncle Clive Francis Duffield VX50046 was a Lance Corporal and he died at Tol. I found out about all this only in 1996. I honestly struggle with this.

When I first found out I wrote to the Japanese embassy and to Canberra, I knew nothing about it . But I would like to find out more.

My grandmother had a stroke when she got the telegram and was put into hospital. She never recovered and died in hospital in 1954 without ever going back home.

She was very angry with my grandfather as he was a market gardener and neither my uncle or my dad had to go to war because he was a produce supplier and needed to work on the farm.

My grandmother wouldn’t sign their papers but my grandfather did and both boys went to war.

Denis Nihill

Jack Butt, a Tol Plantation massacre victim was a great friend of Harold Griffiths, a former president and rower in the Bendigo Rowing Club.

They competed together for a number of years before enlisting.

This year 2018 we are presenting the Butt Griffiths Cup to a winning men's pair oared crew at our annual regatta in their memory.

Judy Holman-Crook

I am writing a book for the two survivors of the 2/22nd Battalion still living and those who have sadly passed away.

There are many stories of the Japanese in Rabaul. How do I know if they are factual? Stories differ, perhaps over time, some details are forgotten. It is the 'why' I am interested in.

Why were the 2/22nd left languishing in camp for so long thinking they were heading for Egypt when the plan was to head for the South Pacific? Uniforms worn were meant for desert warfare.

WW1 guns both big and small were wrong guns for the jungle. But that was all they had to fight with and hardly any ammunition.

There is so much more that went wrong. But what is the correct story? I have stories from some who were there but is the truth of what they didn't know I am after. The 'why' of everything.

Donald Cameron

Japanese Atrocities,
The Tol Plantation Massacre needs more recognition, here in Australia
Lest We Forget

Norma Tonks née Webb

My father Thomas Webb, NX45161, a medical soldier lost his life on 4 th February, 1942 during the Tol Plantation massacre. I spent a week in Rabaul for ANZAC commemoration ceremonies to remember the massacre 70 years on. This was in 2012. Not many of the men were married so not a lot of children to remember them. I seemed to be the only one. I was very touched by the stories of the children of the civilians who were evacuated to Australia with their mother’s while their fathers remained. When they returned home after the war they had no homes or possessions and still don’t know what happenedto their fathers.

Michael Collins

Thankyou for this article. My grandfather, Wilke 'Bill' Collins, was one of the survivors of the Tol massacre. And I've read various versions of the story over the years.

He was part of the 2/10 Ambulance... yes, merely an ambulance driver, and was pretty severely injured during the event. Bayonet wounds, and a bullet lodged near his spine.

He never mentioned his experiences, and was a very quiet man in his later life when I knew him. And it was really only after his passing that I heard the story. The injuries he sustained back then were problematic for the rest of his life.

After his ordeal, and recovery back in Sydney, he re-enlisted (he had to lie about his birth date to do so) to help further with the war effort here in Australia.

I wouldn't be here if he hadn't survived...

William Dunlop

Well said Chris. You have risen well to the occasion.

I shared an Admin house with Ataturk's distant cousin in Lae in 1969.

Who I proposed for and who was accepted for social membership of Lae RSL.

Philip Fitzpatrick

And Slim said nice things about kiaps - bless his soul.

Chris Overland

While I agree that the veneration given to the Anzac landing is, at times, overdone, it is not entirely true to say that Kemal Ataturk was the only "bright star" to arise from that appalling conflict.

It is fair comment to assert that many of the commanders of the Anzac force suffered from the same startling lack of intelligence, imagination and insight that was apparently endemic during World War 1.

That said, Gallipoli was the crucible from which at least three very important Australian generals were to emerge, all of them scarred by the experience and determined not to repeat it.

First, and foremost, was General Sir John Monash, undoubtedly one of the outstanding generals of World War 1. Monash deserves much greater recognition than he has received for his major contribution to the eventual allied victory.

The failure to make Monash Australia's first Field Marshal reflects very badly on an Australian government that apparently could not quite get over his Jewish and German ancestry.

Second, the Anzac landing was a formative experience for Field Marshall Sir Thomas Blamey, who commanded the Australian Army during World War 2.

While not an admirable character in many ways, Blamey proved to be an outstanding "political" general and made a very important contribution to the war effort.

Third, was Lieutenant General Sir Leslie Morshead, who master minded the successful defence of Tobruk against the then rampant Afrika Korps, commanded by Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, perhaps Germany's best field commander of World War 2.

Morsehead was a desperately underrated general who probably suffered because he was only a "colonial" officer and hence not fit to be in the first rank of commanders.

Also worthy of note was British Field Marshal Viscount William Slim, who was seriously wounded at Gallipoli and ultimately went on the lead the successful British offensive in Burma, operating under incredibly difficult conditions to defeat a hitherto undefeated Japanese Army.

Slim was a true fighting soldier, deeply concerned about the welfare of his troops, who went on to become a very respected and popular Governor General of Australia.

While inadequate commanders do tend to be in relatively great abundance during the initial stages of both world war 1 and world war 2, they tend to be replaced by the grimly competent fairly rapidly.

So, while I freely acknowledge that Ataturk was far and away the most important military figure to emerge from the lethal cauldron of Anzac, there were others who are worthy of merit as well.

Paul Oates


Considering that the FW's end up in charge and by en large have done so again, I sincerely doubt we'll ever see that particular National Day of Mourning being gazetted.

Sapos bai yumi bin girapim traipla haus krai olsem em yet bai inoinap lo stretim dispela aswa bilo ol.

Philip Fitzpatrick

We really need a special day to remember all the fuckwits Paul.

Better start making a list.

National Fuckwit Day?

William Dunlop

Anzac. The only bright star out of the Anzac fiasco was the defending Turkish commander, Kemal Ataturk, who went on to greatness as the founder of modern Turkey.

Not withstanding John Monash, who also went on to greatness as a general and a knight of the realm, being knighted in the field of Flanders by the British king.

Paul Oates

What we apparently don't remember however Peter, is the fools that allowed these travesties to happen in the first place.

Lest we don't forget those people especially and yet we continue to do so again and again.

Peter Turner

The Japanese committed similar atrocities all over Asia and the Pacific.

Ones that never get a mention are the fate of the 3-4,000 Indian troops that were done away with in the Sepik or the New Guinea Islands men who made up most of the Japanese initial cargo boi and carrier lines in their Papuan foray and who never went home, or the more than 500 Royal Artillery gunners exterminated on Balele Island off Buin. And so many more.

Vale Lark Force and the other battalion that went 'into the bag' at Ambon.

We do remember them.

Philip Fitzpatrick

And still wondering Keith - it's not a question easily answered.

That line up is quite unique in itself and doesn't bear much relation to newspapers and magazines. PNG Attitude is certainly not the 'Daily Telegraph' nor the 'Melbourne Age' of the blogosphere.

I've quite often read something and then discounted it, especially when I've been compiling the Crocodile anthologies, and then come back to it after it has racked up lots of 'likes'.

The odd sporting piece seems to do well, especially around State of Origin time. Be interesting to see how sex and violence goes. Or maybe a page three pin-up (any volunteers?).

Maybe we should just concede that PNG Attitude, by intent or not, is unique and in a class of its own.

Philip Fitzpatrick

500 'likes' and counting Bernard and William.

I've never been able to figure out what actually appeals to PNG Attitude readers - and I've tried a few ideas out.

This military stuff seems to have wide appeal for some strange reason.

Perhaps dwelling on disastrous wars is a relief from our current politics.

It's a question you've asked a few times previously, Phil, so let me look over the last couple of months and see what has done well (cut off = more than 50 likes in a slow part of the year).

PNG celebrities who write provocative pieces are well regarded. Tanya Zeriga-Alone (324 likes), Martyn Namorong (200), Winnie Kiap (129) and Elvina Ogil (59) performed strongly of late.

Dramatic history does well - especially if it reaches a broad reader catchment in PNG and beyond. The Tol piece (505) was, as you've observed, certainly a hit with our readers.

Tangible issues that immediately impact on PNG readers usually do OK. A recent one concerned the corrupt diversion of funds that eabled the Highlands Highway to become a goat track (78 likes).

Stories of personal hardship, inspiration and success get up there. Like Caroline Evari's recent 'Run Hard' (64).

Factual stuff on the Croc Prize - a matter of great interest to many reader/writers has done well. A piece by Manu Peni chalked up 74 a few days back.

The best we ever did was 1.6K (over a thousand likes the stats are rounded out this way) for Alexander Nara's 'Silent Tears' - a true story about the Bougainville civil war that had plenty of drama, tragedy, bravery, tears and hope. Our PNG readers loved this. And that's a pretty universal formula - KJ

Nancy Tucker

Yes -my father was a volunteer rifle who with others escaped. He managed to get away with one other who I I believe stole a boat from a mission down the south coast of New Britain.

They begged the missionaries to come with them but they believed the Japs would not harm them because of there faith.

He was physically in a very poor state with only a ragged pair of pants to his name. He was sent back to Australia then joined the Australian airforce and went to the Northern Territory working in the bush with a group.

His notes on the escape are held in Camberra and he is mentioned in Ian Townsend's book Line of Fire.

Your report could explain why we found it hard to get information about him from Camberra - my brother was told it was classified information.

He later went back to Rabaul as officer in charge of public works for the rebuild of Rabaul - we lived on Namanula Hill. His name was George Ian MacLennan - mac with an a not Mc as every one tends to do .

My grandparents went to New Guines in the early 1900s and owned Arawa plantation - they also went back to Arawa - we would go to the old homestead that was bombed remains and have picnics - it was in a beautiful spot.

Audrey Singh

What a horror story. The fate of those soldiers is heartbreaking.

Bernard Corden

Dear Phil and William,
There is an interesting book entitled What's wrong with Anzac? -The militarisation of Australian history byMarilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds.
It is somewhat controversial and suggests that the Anzac obsession distorts our understanding of the past and replaces historical fact with mythology.They investigate official sponsorship of Anzac through the funding of commemoration and education and expose the ways it has been mobilised as a conservative political force. It also questions whether nations are really made in war and whether the deaths and loss on foreign shores have been justified.
A bayonet is a weapon with a worker at each end.
It is well worth reading.

William Dunlop

Good on yer Philip. Circus being the operative word. Pomp and ceremony. Inherited from good old Blighty. Paid for by yours truly, the good old taxpayer.

Philip Fitzpatrick

"Constant public breast beating by governments or individuals may eventually wear thin and ultimately debase the events".

Just like Gallipoli and the Kokoda campaign and the whole circus ANZAC Day has become.

Dave Ekins

It is not correct to say that details of the massacre were suppressed. There were widespread press reports of the massacre in most Australian newspapers from April 1942 onwards as well as an official army report from Port Moresby in 1942.

In 1945 Justice Sir William Webb released a report into Japanese atrocities which again led to nationwide press reporting, calls for revenge and manifest expressions of horror.

As the New Guinea campaign wound up in New Britain there were many reports stating that most of the perpetrators of the Tol massacre had probably died in battle or had committed suicide.

I think the lack of knowledge or interest in the Tol massacre, the Montevideo Maru tragedy, the Sandakan Death March and dozens of other incidents is a function of time and a different generation of Australians.

The descendants of the victims of these tragedies will never forget and will always honour those brave and unfortunate men and women.

Constant public breast beating by governments or individuals may eventually wear thin and ultimately debase the events.

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